NATIONAL HARBOR, MD: Many new threats, but few new weapons to meet them. That’s what the cash-strapped future holds for the entire Army, but especially for the service’s most expensive branch, the helicopter corps.

So the challenge is to teach old birds new tricks. As budgets tighten, the service’s strategy to keep up with the threat relies not on buying new helicopters but on upgrading the existing ones — and on flying them with new tactics in concert with unmanned drones.

“We’ve pretty much got the platforms” we’re going to have, said Maj. Gen. William Crosby, the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Aviation, speaking this morning at the Army Aviation Symposium held annually by the Association of the US Army. “The challenge is how do we keep those platforms viable.”

That may require new investments in technical fields largely left fallow while we focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, like defenses against sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles or jamming. “There are some things that we’ve effectively taken a procurement holiday on,” Crosby warned, “[but] everywhere else in the world the threat is still there.”

As Army aviators look beyond Afghanistan, they must prepare for threats far more dangerous than the low-tech Taliban. Afghan guerrillas are notoriously tough fighters, and in the eighties they savaged Soviet helicopters with US-supplied Stinger missiles. Today’s insurgents, however, are largely limited to AK-47s, the occasional heavy machinegun, and rocket-propelled grenades. True, RPGs can shoot down a low-flying helicopter, as shown by the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia; even AK-47s can cripple attack helicopters if you have enough of them, as Army Apaches found out painfully over Karbala in 2003; but they’re ad hoc and inferior anti-aircraft weapons.

The Iraqi insurgents had more missiles than the Afghans, but still not many. Looking to future conflicts, however, infra-red (IR) guided, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles more sophisticated than the old Stinger are increasingly available worldwide, with thousands gone missing in Libya in 2011.

“We’ve been very fortunate from an IR [missile] threat in theater both Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve seen very few,” said Col. John “J.T.” Thompson, a member of the Army Chief of Staff’s elite Strategic Studies Group, speaking on a panel Thursday. In the future, he went on, “could they have brought more, can they bring more? I think yes, I know yes. Will the next conflict or the next adventure, if you will bring, more of an air defense threat? Absolutely it will.”

Yet most aviation units, if not all, are going to be flying the same old aircraft they have now for decades to come. The Army’s AH-64 Apache gunship, though recently upgraded, is a design that dates back to 1984, the workhorse UH-60 Black Hawk to 1979, and the heavy CH-47 Chinook to 1962, while the planned replacement, the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, does not even in theory start enter service until 2032. The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, a 1991 overhaul of a 1969 design, may be replaced sooner by an Armed Aerial Scout, but that program’s future is very much up in the air.

Whether it’s a re-revamped Kiowa or an all-new AAS, the Army definitely wants a more modern manned scout helicopter, but they want it flying in tandem with unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), aka drones. The Army is putting a company of MQ-1C Grey Eagles, its version of the famous Predator, into every division, plus two independent companies to support Special Forces and one company dedicated full-time to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.

“It’s super exciting,” Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum, who commands the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, told Breaking Defense after he addressed the conference. “What we’ve got now will allow us to develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures [for future manned-unmanned teams, by] putting it into the hands of fired up young men and women, fired up folks, that have great ideas on how to employ it.”

“We’re just starting to scratch the surface,” Mangum said. “As we get more Grey Eagles and AH-64Es into the field, we’re going to start seeing this blossom.”

The AH-64E Apache, nicknamed “Guardian,” is a key part of the manned-unmanned team because its new network electronics link pilots directly to the drones. In one training exercise, Mangum told the conference, a Grey Eagle spotted “enemy” tanks, and seventy miles away, “the folks in the AH-64s could control the sensor from the ground,” without even taking off: “They saw their targets, they determined their battle positions, they determined how they were going to engage,” he said, and even called in artillery support in advance of the gunships’ own airstrike.

But drones have vulnerabilities of their own. Even without enemy interference, drones are prone to accidents at much higher rates than manned aircraft, and they sometimes lose their datalinks back to base, which without a pilot aboard means at best aborting the mission and at worst a crash. Flown by software or by remote control, present-day drones lack the agility to evade enemy fire, so a well-armed foe could easily shoot them down. An electronically sophisticated adversary could jam the drones’ datalinks or hack into their electronic brains, as some reports claim the Iranians did to bring down an American RQ-170 stealth drone and capture it apparently undamaged.

“Today,” said Maj. Gen. Crosby, “we’re worried about small arms.” In the future, he said, the threat may be “electromagnetics… people interfering with the signals to the UAVs.”

Part of the solution may be new technology to protect the command-and-control network from such interference. Another part, however, may be reviving some old-fashioned combat tactics.

In the Vietnam War, where the threat was largely small-arms fire from guerrillas on the ground — as in Afghanistan and Iraq — Army aviators learn to fly high, out of range, and only go low to land troops or deliver close-in fire. But against an enemy with sophisticated radar and anti-aircraft missiles, only jets can fly high enough to get away: A helicopter hanging out at high altitude, instead of ducking behind hills and trees, might as well be a piñata. So in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, helicopter pilots learned to fly fast and low, accepting increased vulnerability to small arms and accidents as the price of avoiding Soviet-built missiles. In Afghanistan and Iraq, a new generation of aviators had to relearn high-altitude tactics; now, one aviator told Breaking Defense, it’s time to relearn how to go fast and low.

That’s not the only Cold War skill that needs reviving. Counterinsurgency is a small-unit war, with platoons and squads supported by handfuls of hastily scrambled helicopters. A conventional war or a “hybrid” conflict, one blending conventional and guerrilla elements, would require larger scale operations and more elaborate planning of a kind that the Army has rarely practiced since 9/11.

“There are some out there who would argue that what our field grade officers know is two-ship missions,” Mangum told the conference. “We will never go back to a long planning cycle, [but] we’ve got to get back to the point where we’re doing a better job with deliberate planning.”

Whatever the scale of operations, whatever the threats, however old their aircraft, Army aviators will have to fly and fight. “There is one force that is relentlessly focused on and dedicated to honoring a sacred trust with the commanders and soldiers on the ground,” Mangum declared. “That’s Army Aviation…. That’s why we exist.”

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